A Perspective on Kerry

As I’ve followed the blogosphere on the Swift Boat Veterans , I realized what I feel isn’t important. But the Iraqis are expecting us to cover their backs. Will Kerry?

Iraqis can take comfort in changes. As other posts & commentators have noted, the death toll is down. And the future in that particular area seems to be looking up. Sure, Iran stirs the pot with Sadr. Still, an Iraqi knows that Iran’s other flank is covered not by an Afghanistan of the Taliban and Al-Quaeda training camps, but one whose real problems (poppy fields, tribal loyalties) are countered by a greater transparency, an opening economy, elections. That Iraqi realizes the freedoms he now knows to choose among newspapers, to gather with his friends gives hope to the dissidents in Iran. Encouraged, they have little desire to change his country but rather their own. Therefore, his future looks brighter. And an Iraqi might suppose Americans would stay from self interest – a world safer for Iraqis is safer for Americans.

And so, surely, America will offer the support Iraq still needs. Surely America will continue to build roads and wells and power lines; surely America will fund schools. Surely, America wants this country to stand sturdy and free. Surely, that is true no matter who is president. And surely, a man who dived in to save a fellow sailor will dive in to the hard work ahead. Nor could such a man sell out Iraq to the UN of “oil for food” and the France of Elf oil contracts. I suspect, however, that Iraqi might feel some hesitation as Kerry describes America’s need to “reach out” to the “international community.”

Kerry’s personal anecdotes today, in 1986, in 1971 (testimony, hearings, review of Apocalypse Now) seem designed to establish his role as a thoughtful man who was there and knew what really went down. Real experience might reassure our Iraqi, might reassure us. When it turns out to be borrowed authority, we understand the temptation to exaggerate. Some of it is ego, some of it may be the feeling that the message is so important attention must be paid in that Senate hearing – even if that attention must be bought by some shading of the truth.

Kerry’s stories, however, implicitly and sometimes explicitly condemned his fellow veterans and argued his officers lied; this was not likely to give him (or his admirers) much pause in 1971, in 1986, even in sympathetic papers today. For many, the verdict on Vietnam is in, discussion over. Kerry wrapped himself in an authority few that reported on him could match. But others were less likely to forget. Is it surprising those very officers surfaced this year?

The pattern he found (by, indeed, adding a dot here or there) may not have been exactly “real,” but its application later also raises doubts. For instance, in those Contra hearings his Christmas 1968 analogy was to lies both governments (conveniently Republican, even if the dates were a bit less convenient) told. But, he might argue, in both cases, the government was not honest. However, as it turns out, the “lies” were also his. When Kerry used that story to criticize American aid to the Contras, his point might seem better than his analogy–the government had not been fully honest. However, we might note that not much later free elections reflected a popular will Reagan saw and Kerry did not. We will never know what free elections in Cambodia would have reflected – nor in Viet Nam. We do know what happened when we pulled out. And so, our listening Iraqi might see a nation with neither black nor white hats, but might also find a worrying pattern.

Kerry has been consistent in many ways. And many might agree with him. Clearly, his anti-war activities had a defining effect on how he saw himself in the last thirty years. Indeed, in his argument for Kerry, Sidney Blumenthal argues:

From his first appearance on the public stage, giving voice as a decorated officer to the anti-war disillusionment of Vietnam veterans, when Richard Nixon and his dirty-tricks crew targeted him, he has uncovered cancers on the presidency. This is why the Bush administration fears him. He has explored the dark recesses of contemporary history, often without political reward.

While many of us are less than impressed by Blumenthal, such rhetoric, and, indeed, with Kerry, this stance is attractive to many. The usefulness of such an emphasis is that it fits with his votes, his speeches, his loyalties.

So why did he feel driven to build the Democratic convention that nominated him around his service during those four months? Does his obsessive mention of his heroism really “prove” his Commander in Chief abilities? He put so much weight on that short (and in uncharacteristic) time – a lifetime’s – that it was likely to collapse under the weight, no matter how deserved the medals, how gallant the actions.

This stand of his youth has adherents today —sometimes, as we look at the anti-war demonstrations, we may suspect a majority. Americans have always been critical of tradition, wary of institutions, admiring of rebels. This tradition, however, ill fits with his “reporting for duty” salute. That march to front stage, reminding us of World War II choreography, implies an acceptance of the discipline of an institution, a willingness to take responsibility rather than to question it, to submerge the ego rather than assert it. In the seventies, that script seemed anachronistic. We may find it less so today. But, Kerry remains a man of the seventies in many ways; we can be excused for worrying about his sincerity. Does he think we want him to be a hero or does he want to be one? Is he too sophisticated for such flag waving, but using it because he feels voters are ripe for ad populum arguments? As Americans we are a bit puzzled; surely someone from another culture can’t navigate these uncertainties.

At the convention, Kerry implies he is a man of action. But he also sees himself as a man of diplomacy. We don’t want aimless acts any more than we want desultory negotiations. Only the ideologues among us (and apparently Kerry himself) are likely to fault the candidates for not immediately taking bold action on 9/11; we recognize information needs to be gathered and assessed before acts make sense. But, then, responsibility requires action. Prufrock’s sense of time (endless time, time for visions and revisions) is Kerry’s “plan.” Let’s talk to the French, let’s talk (the oil for food scandal, the Elf contracts – those we can chat about, too; those, too, perhaps we could have revised over time). I doubt the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Nicaraguans, the Iraqis, or the Afghanis felt there was all that much time for visions and revisions

But, we wonder, how does John Kerry, in the end, connect those dots of what he did and thought about Vietnam? We’ve seen others wrestle with these. It baffles us; historians protest that it will take another generation to tell – maybe not then. Politicians make history, they don’t have to do it. But Kerry asks us to see his four months as argument, as authority. So, we ask him, what did he learn? Can he help us see the present more clearly by looking at the past? If it gives him authority, how and why and in what way?

What we might like to know, because in an oblique way it does tell us about him and the present: How does John Kerry feel, in his gut, about the those great disasters–the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge, the former of whom still see him as a hero? And, the Iraqi might ask, to whom do we owe loyalty?

How does he define the responsibility of power, power in the form of that seat before or in Congress, over his crew in combat or at meetings in Paris, the power of ideas and economics, of diplomacy or bombs?

If I were an Iraqi, I’d be a tad nervous. Does America see any need to stay? Does Kerry believe that this war was chosen by Bush and Iraq is, well, not America’s problem? How does Kerry see those who bribed suicide bombers? The choices Kerry makes are likely to have an immediate effect on that Iraqi; the effects on us are likely to arrive a good deal more slowly.

Some joke that Kerry only respects those who fight against America and not those who fight with her. That seems facile, but does he sense the power of an idea; does he give their due to the dissidents of Eastern Europe, of Cuba, of South American dictatorships? Perhaps, as Brooks notes, his response to the Varela project is a key. Certainly, Chavez and Castro find Kerry an attractive candidate – not people to whom such heroes as Vaclav Havel feel kinship. We remember remarks about the “drunken Vietnamese” on Christmas eve, the “counterproductive” nature of the Cuban dissidents. These would give little comfort to a dissident in Iran, a newly recruited policeman in Iraq, a tribal leader wanting the best for his people in Afghanistan. Apparently, 90% of the American Vietnamese intend to vote for Bush. Is that a surprise?

I’m no expert, just of a certain age. And I’m willing to admit that most of the world seems to hate George Bush and much of it would, apparently, like us to vote in Kerry. But I wonder how comfortable they would be in that alliance. (Ah, as usual, there is the wisdom of country/western lyrics; “Thank God for unanswered prayers” I’ve thought more than once as I turned from my leftish past to my rightish present.)

My impression, for instance, has been that most Viet Vets are whole. Their lives, in word and action, decision and reflection, indicate that what they did then is of a piece with what they have done since they came back. They have different political allegiances; a large minority will vote for Kerry. But most would recognize our job to cover the backs of those Iraqi policeman. Most feel loyalty to that band of brothers with whom they served. I can’t imagine them describing the coalition as “the bribed, the coerced, the bought and extorted.” And I can’t imagine a man leading a coalition he has described in that way.

18 thoughts on “A Perspective on Kerry”

  1. “…Why would they? I am a Republican, and for more than 30 years I have largely voted for Republicans. I volunteered for his campaign because I have seen John Kerry in the worst of conditions. I know his character. I’ve witnessed his bravery and leadership under fire. And I truly know he will be a great commander in chief….”

    This is the sort of highly questionable crap that BOTH sides parade as a “voice of reason”. This is tantamount to someone saying “now…I have several black friends, so what I say about blacks carries more credence…” Weak at best….

  2. “So why did he feel driven to build the Democratic convention that nominated him around his service during those four months?”

    He did it this way because months of focus group testing showed that the themes and images that were likely to help Kerry pick up as-yet uncommitted voters were martial ones, and that he had to find a way to cut in on Bush’s strength as commander in chief, so he did it this way.

    I don’t think there is much deep psychology in this. Kerry and his team will do anything to win, and they thought this would help them win. He’d have gone on in a Santa Claus suit if that would have helped him win.

  3. I agree with Lex. Kerry has always been a opportunist who has also, somehow, always believed he’s entitled to be President. What’s more, in his mind, he’s better than just about anyone else in politics. This latter explains his terminal self-righteousness, only slightly less obvious today than when he testified before the Senate and was interviewed on MEET THE PRESS in 1971. He’s a faux intellectual with no real convictions. As Ginny says, he’s Prufrock, the perpetual muser who never acts because only those with genuine principles are capable of action, four disputed months in combat notwithstanding. His Prufrockian cipherness, not a commitment to pacifism, explains his post Vietnam dovishness. Beyond that, there is NO John Kerry. Next time, I’ll quit beating around the bush and tell you what I really think.

  4. “He’s a faux intellectual with no real convictions. ”

    I think you’re right about the first part. Bill Clinton had no real convictions (a lot of civil suits though…;) and would do whatever polls told him to do.

    The difference is that Kerry will SAY whatever polls tell him to to get elected. Hence the magical transformation of a leftist, militantly pacifist, anti-American party that hates the military into a flag waving patriotic military loving party that claims to be stronger on national defense than it’s opposition. I’m not sure who believed this image less, Republicans or Democrats.

    But Kerry represents a wing of the Democratic party that cut it’s teeth on the fundamental principle of the 60’s protest movement: America is the biggest problem in the world and must be stopped from interfering with people trying to achieve a noble experiment and create a collectivist workers paradise. From Vietnam to the Soviets to Nicaragua to Cuba to Iraq, he has consistently sided against America whenever we have tried to encourage democracy and freedom around the world and resist tyrrany.

    That wing of the Demcratic party at very least views communism as a benign ideology practiced by those who care about the underprivileged and simply want equality. And I fear that it is much worse than that. That wing viewed the Cold War with contempt because deep down they agreed with the goals, if not the tactics, of the brutal mass murderers who always seemed to get ahold of these regimes before they could complete their work.

    Correspondingly, that wing views capitalism with contempt, but will use it to achieve their ultimate goals, i.e. get elected. But make no mistake, to them capitalism is just a weigh station on the path to a progressively more collectivist vision of the future. I think much more than Bill Clinton who really just wanted to be president and did whatever would get him there, Kerry is a more dangerous animal.

    Or maybe he’s just a shifty waffler who has no soul or principle other than getting elected. He has me little confused too. Maybe that’s his plan, since this election isn’t really about him.

  5. For years Kerry has been ideologically consistent as one of the most leftist members of Congress. (Maybe Lex will correct me, but Kerry seems more leftist than is necessary to hold office in Massachusetts.) His main if not sole excursions from leftist orthodoxy have come during the current presidential campaign. It appears, therefore, that he is both ideologically consistent, and a waffler when it suits him politically to appear more conservative than he is. The worst of both worlds.

  6. Kerry and his wife have a very healthy disdain for the lower classes. It helps him get through these long days of campaigning. His noblesse oblige, merely to associate with these people, touches my heart.

  7. Reconsidering things, I must concede that D J and Jonathan are correct. Kerry does have an ideology to which he has been consistent. After thinking about it, I believe Kerry’s ideology is post-modernism (which would make him the first truly post-modernist politician). Post-modernists have one fundamental conviction. To wit: Truth is neither objective nor universal; consequentially, all convictions but this one must be banished tout court. No one can be allowed to believe he has found objective, universally applicable truths because, in principle, no such truths can be found. As a result, there must be a powerful state, even a world state (remember, Kerry has advocated putting US troops under UN command), to create a stable and “equitable” social order (for no such order exists naturally) and to ensure we all “just get along.”

    It’s no wonder that John “Prufrock” Kerry believes there will always be time and time for decisions and revisions, made, no doubt, by such illuminati as himself employing the power of the state (and, on occasion, even flag waving) to maintain a rigid stability – Orwellian, Huxleyan, or even, alluding again to Prufrock, “Polonian” (“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendent lord . . . / Deferential, glad to be of use, / Politic, cautious, and meticulous . . . .”). Should we be surpirsed then when Kerry finds the activities of Cuban dissidents, and the like, “counter-productive?” (BTW, one might say that Prufrock is the first post-modernist, which makes Eliot the first critic of post-modernism, but I digress.)

    I suppose I’m giving Kerry too much credit. At bottom, he’s probably merely an ambitious, opportunist politician who adopts whatever pose he finds useful, but, as the other commentators have said, there also seems to be something more about Kerry. Perhaps, that something more is the post-modernist program I’ve outlined above, which just might exist, in inchoate and incomplete form, within Kerry’s mind. Of course, by its very nature, post-modernism is always incoherent and incomplete.

  8. Scotus:

    Is it perfume from a dress
    That makes you so digress?

    Let us go then, you and I
    And talk about this frightening guy
    We were young once, young and merry
    Let us talk about John Kerry.

    In the hall, politicians come and go
    Speaking of things that happened long ago

    I’m making this up as I go along
    I’m wasting time, and that is wrong.

  9. After that poetic digression we need a joke:


    What do Walter Mitty and John Kerry have in common? Great imaginations.

    What are the War Heros Afraid of?

    Form 180. Release the records.

  10. I think Kerry is an ideological leftist. I just think his decision to try to turn the DNC into Private Ryan II: Vietnam was all about electoral micromanagement of images. So, no inconsistency there. He is a leftist who will do and say anything to get elected. I think Clinton was similar. However, Clinton was more clever, in that his purpose was set forth by the purportedly centrist DNC. What he and they wanted to do was to create a new electoral center of middle class voters by creating new government entitlements that served the middle class that made the majority of people dependent on the Government for their basic needs, which would make the GOP irrelevant since everybody who is dependent on the government always knows the Dems will give you more. So, Clinton was a smarter and more dangerous beast, whose overreaching led to his 1994 defeat, which in effect neutralized him. Kerry is more reflexive and old fashioned, more like Mondale but not as smart and lacking the element of basic human decency which Mondale seemed to have.

  11. “Interesting how a comfortable fortune can afford one to be a leftist. When I’m loaded like Soros and I get bored, maybe I’ll try it out too.”

    This is a seemingly fascinating paradox which I have thought about a lot. I have a few pet theories.

    Think about this: What effect do the typical leftist policies have on WEALTH, not income, and you might start to understand.

    The correct answer is they don’t have much affect on them at all. Since income not wealth is taxed, it is more difficult to GET wealthy, but there is nothing that the government does that takes that wealth from the uber-wealthy (other than inheritance taxes which only affect their sniveling trust-fund babies who have been waiting around for them to die), it just keeps them from getting even richer.

    This has the effect of permanently cementing the aristocracy in their position of superiority. When your every need is taken care of, many don’t mind all that much if they can’t get even wealthier as long as nobody supplants them at the top. The Progressive income tax in particular maintains the status quo by limiting competition from new entries at the country club.

    There is also a guilt that comes with inherited wealth, like Kerry, the Kennedy’s, Rockefellers, etc. As opposed to their amibitious, go-getter, ancestors that went out and busted their humps to earn the wealth in the first place, these people know that they did nothing to earn that wealth themselves other than being born, and have this skewed idea that anybody who is wealthy got that way through sheer chance, instead of hard work. They probably believe or have been told when they went to Harvard or Yale that their ancestors probably did something dishonest or immoral to earn that wealth in the first place. This has the effect of making them almost disdainful enough to give away all of their inherited wealth. But not quite. Actually it makes them feel just guilty enough to want the government to give away other people’s money.

    I have a little harder time understanding Soros or Warren Buffet or even guys like Robert Rubin or John Corzine, except……

    There is a huge myth in this country that the financial markets and Wall Street are the last bastion of un-regulated laissez faire free market capitalism where the Gordon Gecko’s of the world serve as predators in a survival of the fittest contest.

    This is hardly the case. The finanical markets are highly regulated from the Federal Reserve to the SEC to the New York Stock exchange. In reality these are heavily regulated cartels which are protected from competition by government regulation. The government has enormous say in who wins and who loses.

    That is the world that liberal Democrats are most comfortable in. I’m sure they think that the markets aren’t regulated enough.

    It actually doesn’t make much sense to me how there are so many Republicans on Wall Street and so few Democrats. But then again, the idea that Republicans are the keeper of the laissez fair flame is another myth that I have come to realize is total BS.

  12. Sure Kerry is wealthy. So what? So is Bush. Forget about that and concentrate on the real issues. Like why Bush has supported racist policies ever since he was governor of Texas.
    Bush wants to destroy affirmative action, the only form of reparations we’ve got right now.
    I’m for reparations of a monetary sort, but I’ll take what I can get.
    Kerry will strengthen affirmative action, and might even give us more substantial reparations. That would be worth my vote right there.

  13. Opposing racial preferences is racist? Why? If a house is on fire and you and I disagree on the best way to put the fire out, does that make me an arsonist? According to your flawed logic about Bush’s motives, the answer would be yes.

    Slavery and Jim Crow are history. Neither the people who suffered nor the people who inflicted suffering are around anymore. Why should people who weren’t alive at the time, and in many cases whose ancestors weren’t even in the United States until recently, be forced to subsidize other people who are too young to have been discriminated against? To compel such wealth transfers using racial criteria is no less immoral than race-based Jim Crow laws were.

    I don’t owe you anything, and I resent the racist assertion that my skin color obligates me to pay you.

  14. Jonathan,

    How could forget racism only applied to white people ? Tolerant white people accept that they owe money to those who are not white in reparation of sins that were not committed by themselves, for the benefit of people who never suffered from them.

    Get with the program, dude.

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